I generally consider myself a sweet rather than savoury kind of girl. By that I refer, of course, to my tastes in food, rather than implying that if you came over and licked my arm it would taste sugary. I enjoy baking and the gentle crafting of desserts more than I do the assembly of savoury dishes, and I have a completely unlimited appetite when it comes to the final course of a meal. Especially if it involves crumble and ice cream. Seriously. I have been known to eat half a cheesecake in a single sitting.
Yet when my attention is drawn to a specific fruit - something on sale in the supermarket, maybe, or something that's just come into season and is appearing in ripe, plentiful boxes at the market - I seem to instinctively bypass the natural reaction of contemplating desserts to showcase it, and instead jump straight to thinking up savoury recipes.
I put this down to my desire to think up slightly unusual pairings (perhaps a consequence of being achingly uncool as a child and therefore desiring to be edgy and different nowadays), but perhaps also to my love of fruit in all its guises, particularly as a sharp, sweet and zesty way to perk up the richer ingredients in life, from smoked fish and braised meat to oozing cheeses and plates of sexy wholegrains.
No, that's not an oxymoron. Believe it or not, I actually like wholegrains.
No, I don't wear socks with sandals.
A couscous or pearl barley salad, for example, wouldn't be the same without the explosive magenta snap of a jewel-like pomegranate seed. Rice, particularly the brown variety, is always tastier with some chopped dried apricots folded through, perhaps with a little cinnamon too. Then there are the endless possible pairings of meat and fruit, or fish and fruit, many of which appear on this blog already. Pork and apple, standard, but also more interesting ideas like duck and figs, or steak and mango.
Or chicken and cherries.
I think this delightful combination was first introduced to me by the wonderful food writer Diana Henry, in her book 'Food From Plenty'. She features a stuffing for roast chicken comprising cherries - dried or fresh - goat's cheese, dill, breadcrumbs and onion. It worked wonderfully. I've tried it with both fresh and dried cherries, and the dried ones are actually more successful, possessing a stronger, resinous flavour that can stand up to the assertive cheese and dill.
Perhaps that's what was bouncing around in my subconscious when I suddenly came up with the idea for this salad.
Largely responsible for the raw materials are the wonderful people at Picota Cherries, who have been sending me gorgeous cherry-based goodies (including a mug, which has quickly become my favourite thanks to its sturdy shape and ample tea-carrying capacity) to mark the start of the season for this excellent fruit. Incidentally, I also love them for sending me the most incredible hamper of Spanish foodstuffs and making me feel like Christmas had arrived in the middle of summer.
I'd never heard of these Spanish cherries before. They're grown in the Jerte Valley in the Extremdura region of Spain, where they are ripened for twice as long as other cherry varieties, lending them a deep red colour and sweet flavour. They're notable for being the only naturally stalkless cherry available - as the fruits fully ripen, the stalks just fall away. Proudly bearing the Denomination of Origin status, these are special cherries indeed. I was thrilled when I received some in the post last week.
They're great cherries. Beautifully dark and heart-shaped, with a strong and lovely fruity flavour. You can slice them in half lengthways and admire their gorgeous dark-veined interiors, a pale gold colour with a crimson blush radiating out from the middle where the stone had been cosseted only seconds before.
As I said, my mind immediately turned to the savoury rather than the sweet. I've made sweet things with cherries in the past - notably this cherry and amaretti cheesecake, or cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing - but I've always thought that the lovely subtlety of the cherry's flavour is masked by the sweet things we naturally pair them with, like chocolate. It tends to blend into the background like a shy girl at a party, swamped by those dominant flavours who hog the limelight. One of my favourite ways to use cherries is in a cobnut and goat's cheese salad with shaved fennel, and this recipe is basically a new and different version of that. Similar, in fact, only in that it uses goat's cheese too.
Goat's cheese, because it works so well with cherries (as it does with most fruits - particularly pears and apples). It has a chalky, tangy richness that needs the bite of a crunchy fruit to cut through it.
Smoked chicken, because - unlike normal chicken - it's cloyingly rich and can take the strong crispness of fruit as a partnering flavour. In fact, the fruit positively balances the strength of the smoky meat.
Fresh basil and mint, to add a citrussy snap that lifts the whole plateful. Plus these herbs both work very well on their own with goat's cheese or chicken.
Watercress and rocket, for a peppery hit to counteract all those intense flavours.
A drizzle of hazelnut oil, for a rich, nutty flavour to soften the sharp edges of the cheese and fruit.
Finally, a hefty dash of balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten up the palate. Don't be shy.
This is just a gorgeous summer plateful. The colours are so striking when it's all piled together. The flavours are like a small rave going on in your mouth with every bite - sweet, salty, smoky, crunchy, peppery. It feels indulgent, yet is terribly healthy. It's unusual, so will win you dinner party points, with people oohing and aahing over the exciting and frightfully modern use of cherries in a savoury dish.
I can't think of a better way to showcase these lovely Picota cherries.
So much more exciting than a chocolate cake.
The best thing about this salad is its adaptability. I added some cooked brown and wild rice to make it a more substantial meal (meals without carbs frightne me). I also think some toasted nuts - particularly flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts - would add a welcome flavour and texture dimension. You could swap the smoked chicken for smoked duck, or any smoked meat really. Smoked mackerel would be surprisingly good, I think, or even Parma ham (though to keep it vaguely Spanish, let's say Serrano ham). Blue cheese might work instead of goat's, or possibly some feta or mozzarella.
Picota cherry, smoked chicken and goat's cheese salad (serves 1 generously):
- A large handful of watercress or rocket, or both
- 12 Picota (or normal) cherries, halved and stone removed
- 1 smoked chicken breast, shredded
- 2 sprigs fresh basil, leaves roughly torn
- 2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 50g soft goat's cheese, crumbled
- Hazelnut oil (optional - use olive if not)
- Balsamic vinegar
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- Additions: toasted flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts; cooked brown/wild rice or lentils
This is the easiest recipe you will ever make. Place the watercress and/or rocket, the cherries, the chicken breast, the herbs and the goat's cheese in a large bowl. Toss gently together. Drizzle with the hazelnut oil, balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon, to taste, and season with salt and pepper.